“Uh oh! You see how our kitty is arching her back and moving away from you? That means she doesn't like how you're playing with her right now. She's using her body to tell you to leave her alone. Let's go play with something else together.” I have conversations like that with my almost 2-year-old son multiple times a week, not only because I want him to be a respectful friend and pet owner, but because that's one of the many sex positive things you can say to your son that don't necessarily even have to do with sex, but do lay an important foundation for his sexual behavior in the future.
Sex positivity is simply the idea that sex and sexuality are normal and positive parts of life, as long as they're expressed in healthy, respectful, and consensual ways. Sex positive people recognize that sex should feel good — emotionally and physically — which means everyone involved needs to feel knowledgeable and comfortable enough with their own bodies and their partners to give and get what they want out of any sexual interaction. Unfortunately, there's a lot of misinformation and mythology about sex that prevent people from living their sexual lives this way, which is a source of much needless trauma and pain in our lives. However, as parents we can end that cycle, by ensuring that our kids know the truth about their bodies, about their rights and boundaries, and about sex itself.
As sex positive parents — and parents of sons in particular — we have a special responsibility to make sure our sons don't grow up with the kind of shame and misunderstandings that not only put them at risk of harm, but may make them a danger to others in their future sexual interactions. Our sex negative culture teaches us all many lies about male sexuality, including that boys and men are inherently bad and sexually aggressive. Yet, the mythology goes, because they have these “base” desires, it's OK for them to trick, manipulate, or even force women and girls into sex. This is rape culture in a nutshell, and it’s on us to stop it. As parents, we have a huge role to play in interrupting these kinds of messages before they shape our sons’ behavior (whether our sons are gay or straight).
The following kinds of sex positive statements can help us raise boys into men who are safe for others to be around, and capable of having the kinds of fulfilling, satisfying relationships we hope will enrich their lives.
“Yep, That's Your Penis!”
I find myself saying this at nearly every diaper change, usually in between saying things like, “Yep, that's your nose!” or “Yep, that's your knee!” Even as little babies, our sons notice their bodies during diaper changes, bath time, and any other time, really. It's important to use those moments to make sure they learn the proper language for all of their body parts from a young age, and to treat their private parts as no more inherently shameful as any other body part.
“It's OK To Touch Yourself, As Long As You Have Privacy”
Eventually, boys and girls alike discover that touching their private parts can feel good. That's a perfectly healthy development. Instead of shaming or punishing them for doing so, sex positive parents model setting boundaries and reinforce the normalcy of sexual pleasure by letting them know it's OK, but that they should only do so in their own private spaces (like alone in their own bedrooms, or when they bathe themselves).
“If Your Friends Say ‘Stop’ While You're Playing, That Means You Stop Right Away”
Consent and boundaries are fundamental concepts in all relationships, not just sexual ones. That’s why teaching consent can and should happen in lots of other, totally non-sexual contexts from a very early age, including when they're learning how to play fairly with friends.
“It Looks Like That Dog/Cat/Friend Doesn't Want To Be Touched. Let’s Leave Them Alone.”
I don't use words like “sex positive” or “consent” when I help my son interact with our or others’ pets (or with new people, for that matter). That's what I'm thinking about, though; teaching him how to read others’ body language for signs that indicate their openness or unwillingness to be touched. Those are skills he'll need in a variety of future situations, sexual and otherwise.
“Can I Hug You?”
Again, consent consent consent. Asking before giving our sons affectionate touches is how we both honor their right to govern their own bodies, and model how they should do that for others.
“Ask Before Giving Hugs Or Other Nice Touches”
Just like we should always ask them before giving touches, we'll need to remind them to ask, too. These reminders are more effective if we always ask them, so they know what asking looks like in practice.
“Adults Have Sex To Make Babies…”
When our sons ask where babies come from, we should tell them the truth (in age-appropriate ways). We don't need to give very young children all the details or lots of concepts they can't understand. However, by telling them the simple truth that grown ups usually make babies by having sex (putting their private parts together in a way that lets a man’s sperm meet a woman’s egg inside her body) is better than lying to them, or treating the subject like a shameful secret they're not allowed to know yet.
“...And Also Because Sex Feels Good...”
Older kids and teenagers eventually need to understand that sex doesn't always result in pregnancy, and that making children isn't the only reason people have sex. They also need to know sex is supposed to feel good, physically and emotionally, for everyone involved.
It's incredibly important that our sons understand that their partners deserve and should expect sexual pleasure just as much as they do, once they are mature enough to actually have sex. When boys and men don't understand that their desire is normal and healthy — and that girls and women experience desire too — we run the risk of having things like pressuring or drugging someone in order to meet their sexual needs, seem "normal." They need to understand that that is rape, and that they don't need to resort to coercion or rape to experience sexual release. If they are safe, comfortable, respectful, caring people, they can cultivate the kinds of relationships in which they can have truly (and mutually) fulfilling sex.
“...But That's Only True When You’re Mature And Ready Enough To Have Sex”
Some critics of the notion of sex positive parenting worry that being honest about sexual pleasure will make kids vulnerable to sexual abuse. However, kids who misunderstand sex, or who feel too ashamed to discuss their bodies with the trusted adults in their lives, are far more easily manipulated into situations where they can be sexually abused. Abusers use kids’ innate curiosity about sex, their desire to be cooperative, and their body shame against them, and exploit their shame and lack of language about sex to maintain the silence they need to get away with abuse.
Again, sex positivity revolves around the notion that sex should feel physically and emotionally good. That means all participants need to be in a position to freely consent to sex, which children fundamentally can't. Even if any sexual contact they experienced were to incidentally feel good physically, the emotional damage of adults (or even more powerful and/or older kids) manipulating or forcing them into sexual conduct fails that fundamental test.
So it's important to ensure our kids know that sex isn't fundamentally bad, and that it is inappropriate for anyone to try to engage them in any kind of sexual conduct — from inappropriate touching, to asking them to look at others’ private parts or have theirs looked at, to taking inappropriate photos of them, and so forth — while they are young.
“No One Should Ever Touch You In A Way That Doesn't Feel Good...”
Our sons need to understand that they have a right to decide who touches them, and when and how, and that if that doesn't feel good to them, that they can ask and/or do whatever else they need to do to make it stop. They need to understand that this is true for any kind of touch, whether it's a prospective hug from a relative, or a sexual touch from a future sex partner.
It's also important for our sons to understand that not all sexual touches will feel good to them, that that is normal, and that it's OK for them to demand that it stops (even if the person touching them is female). Our culture teaches boys and men that “real men” always want and enjoy sexual touch, and that straight men always enjoy touches they receive from women. These myths not only leave them vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault, but leaves them without social support and understanding if these things happen to them.
“...And You Should Never Touch Anyone Else In A Way They Don't Want And Like”
And of course, our sons need to know that just like they have a right not to experience touches they don't want, everyone else they meet has that same right and expectation of them. Recognizing that all the people they meet have the same rights they do, and that other people have their own complex mixes of desires, fears, curiosities and discomforts like they do, will help them avoid becoming a danger to others, and lay the foundation for the kinds of mutually fulfilling relationships we want for them in the future.